David O. Russel's The Fighter answers the opening bell like a boxer whose fight it is to win, but who comes out so pulsating with adrenaline that you're afraid he's going to punch himself out in the early rounds. Christian Bale's eyes bulge as Dicky Eklund, the troubled, crack-addicted brother of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Melissa Leo struts around manically in high heels, tight clothes, a square helmet of frosted hair, her lower lip pushed up in so resolute a frown that it verges on the comic. And then there are the sisters. The seven female siblings of Dicky and Micky are ostensibly seven individuals, each with a nickname more colorful than the last - Tar, Red Dog and Beaver, to name but a few - but speaking fiercely as one beneath their gravity-defying coifs of Irish fair hair. They're scary.
With a family and entourage - mom is the manager; Dicky is the trainer whenever he can pry himself away from a Lowell crack house - like this, it's no wonder that Micky is on a losing streak after a promising beginning to his professional boxing career. The first bout we see is kind of a culmination of all this swirling dysfunction. Micky loses the fight, we see blood shoot from a cut opened on his face, supporters of each fighter brawl at ringside. Even the ring girl trips as she's trying to jiggle her way through the ropes between rounds, as if no one is immune from the insanity.
As a boxer, Micky Ward was known a slow starter, surging to life in the middle and late rounds. The Fighter comes out too fast, but begins to find its way before a strong finish. What's made abundantly clear from those first intense glimpses of Dicky, the mother and the sisters, views which seem at first caricatures, is that the circle around Micky is sabotaging any chance he has of success. This happens in obvious ways, as when, his "management" allows a last minute substitution in opponents for the aforementioned fight in which he gets pummeled. Perhaps the more profound damage is intangible, the toll taken by the almost constant, crazy distractions. The only two people who actually seem able to act in his best interest are his father, George (Jack McGee) and Mickey O'Keefe (playing himself; much harder on screen than it might seem), the Lowell police sergeant who works as his trainer.
|A chorus of disapproval. But four of the women and just some of the hair that make up the seven-headed monster which is the sisters of Micky Ward in The Fighter.|
|Christian Bale again with the dark night, this time of Dicky Eklund.|
Formidable as are the sisters of Micky and Dicky, hell hath no fury like a woman determined to act against type. Enter Amy Adams as Charlene. The woman with the sweet demeanor and retrousse nose managed to bring a surprising amount of substance to potentially flimsy characters in Junebug, Enchanted and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. However, she had more recently entered a period of diminishing returns with the same sort of perky women in Julie and Julia and Leap Year.
She's first seen in The Fighter tending bar in not much more clothing than a boxer might sport in the ring. As Micky notices her in the bar, the camera leers right along with him, noting the short shorts as she leans over, the burgundy top, sleeveless, bare of midriff and tracing a very revealing line across the chest. Ms. Adams reportedly told David O. Russel, "If it happens between action and cut, I'll do anything." Anything in this case involves showing a considerable amount of skin in a couple of scenes, lowering her voice out of the realm of the singsong and demonstrating a toughness heretofore unseen in her body of work. When Micky's mother and sisters descend en masse (the sisters almost always descend and declaim en masse) to Charlene's house and the inevitable donnybrook ensues, you believe her when she says - to Tar, for the record - "Don't call me skank. I'll rip that nasty hair right out of your head."
The relationship that starts fitfully and develops slowly between Micky and Charlene causes a predictable rift with his mother and sisters, particularly since the "MTV girl" - one of the less-inflammatory names with which Charlene is labelled by the sisters - encourages Micky to take an offer for professional training and management outside the family. That rift, the imprisonment of Dicky and the estrangement of the half-brothers, are the nadir from which the story rises.
It's a credit to Ms. Adams tough but not one dimensional performance and a strong script that she comes off as both an option away from his family, but yet another person vociferously bending Micky's ear. Finally, when Dicky is out of prison and two factions in his life are at odds, Micky feels compelled say to Charlene and everyone else "I want my family, is that so wrong?" Fortunately, the real story of Micky and Dicky does allow for both. The Fighter takes some liberties with the real-life narrative, as any non-documentary film will, but it has a great template from which to work. As for the bedlam of the boxer's clan, the real Micky Ward insists that, if anything, The Fighter toned down the worst of the Ward/Eklund family get togethers. "It's like the OK Corral when we get together!" he said in a recent interview.
There was a time in the last decade or so when it seemed Edward Norton was to be anointed the next Robert DeNiro, the genuine article have ridden off into a warm, lucerative Fockers sunset. But with the intensity he brings to performances, his willingness to severely alter his body for the sake of character, Christian Bale might just be the heir apparent. Actually, Messrs Norton and Bale had dueling fin-de-siecle magician films in theaters in 2006, The Prestige and The Illusionist. As for Mr. DeNiro, he famously played both the lean, relentless Jake La Motta and the corpulent post-boxing version, trimming and bloating his physique accordingly in Martin Scorces's Raging Bull. In an almost equally famous transformation, Christian Bale lost 60 to 70 pounds, reducing himself to the frightening, skeletal, sleep-deprived Trevor in The Machinist. For The Fighter, Mr. Bale has returned to Machinist Diet, not so attenuated as he was for the 2006 film, but looking very much the part of a former welterweight boxer turned crack addict.
Here and in previous films, Mr. Bale's prowess goes well beyond an ability to dramatically yo-yo his weight (after The Machinnist, he so successfully bulked up for Batman Begins that crew members referred to him as "Fatman" on the set). He plays Dicky with a looping cadence in both speech and movement; again, graceful boxer meets the staccato body language and speech of the drug addict. While the film drops us into the deep end of Bale's restless characterization, he frenetically fills in the blanks like an abstract painter splashing vivid colors across a canvas. In the end, you might not know exactly what to make of it, but the impact, the emotion can't be denied. Dicky's toughness, his boxing canniness are finally instrumental to Micky's success. Bale gives The Fighter its edge.
Just as Micky Ward is the eye of the dysfunctional storm of his family, Mark Wahlberg is the calm center of The Fighter. Around him are more histrionic performances; arguably, there are around him better actors. But it all might be too much if not for his subdued, determined turn as the former boxing champion.
While Mr. Wahlberg does have the lean, muscular body of an athlete, he's not going to fool anyone as a boxer. But despite the film's title and the fact that its central character is a fighter, this isn't really a boxing film. Even the more heralded of boxing pictures struggle to realistically capture the flow, the give and take of a boxing match. But there is in The Fighter an attempt at verisimilitude. In one of the early bouts, there is the unfortunate, Rocky-like device of the camera focused on Micky's head, a box glove entering the frame, followed by the natural recoil of the skull, all of this in slow motion. Just as the film, typical it's subject, gets off to a bad start, subsequent bouts are better presented. They're based on specific Ward fights, utilize the actual HBO commentary, are filmed with period cameras and attempt to replicate action of those fights shot for shot.
Mr. Wahlberg is obviously interested in verisimilitude as well. He's one of the producers of The Fighter, the release of which marks the fruition of years of work on his part. The actor is quite open in his admiration for the boxer. Both men arrived late in families of nine. Both were preceded into their professions by older brothers. Each man has had his scrapes with the law; their fathers reportedly met in prison. Mr. Wahlberg's success at getting The Fighter made marks another case in 2010 of a Massachusetts boy returning home to tell a story from a working class Boston or Lowell milieu.
In Ben Affleck's case, the repeated dredging of working class pathos in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Southie and Charlestown begins to smack of exploitation, however sympathetic he might be to those areas. In The Town, he plays a character that is implausible not only to Charlestown, but to the human race, coming off a Hollywood actor/director wanting to buy himself some credibility without really getting his hands dirty. Mr. Wahlberg seems content to bring to the screen the story of Micky Ward. With The Fighter, he proves that it's easier to go home again if your heart is in the right place.